The scope of a new global healthcare market worth billions of pounds is being tested by Philips, the electronics group, in the UK with the world’s biggest trial of distance monitoring of chronically ill patients in their homes.
The Dutch company is hoping to prove to the NHS that it can stem the mounting financial burden of institutional care by using high-tech diagnostic equipment linked by the internet.
Patients in Newham, a deprived East London borough, are being monitored at home using diagnostic equipment linked via broadband internet connections to local hospitals and clinics. The Newham patients are able to test their own blood pressure or blood oxygen level and send the data in an electronic message to staff at the Primary Health Trust.
Further trials are under way in Cornwall and Kent, as the Department of Health (DoH) targets technology efficiencies that could save the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds.
The system, known as Telehealth or Telecare, is a potential goldmine for medical technology companies, such as Philips. As governments worldwide prune their healthcare budgets, the Dutch group is broadening its business reach from sophisticated diagnostic scanners costing millions of pounds to more basic equipment that, when used in conjunction with the internet, can help governments to slow the rise in healthcare bills.
According to the DoH, 14.5 million people in Britain have long-term conditions requiring monitoring. The “whole system demonstrator” will assess the cost-benefit of monitoring patients with chronic conditions in their own homes rather than in long-stay care establishments and hospital outpatient departments.
A DoH spokesman said that the technology was not intended to replace hospitals and care homes but to make better use of resources.
Savings from Telehealth are still unknown, but a study of local authority use of residential care has revealed a potential goldmine. The spokesman said: “£500 million can be taken from current spend on residential care across the country to deliver more support for people in their own homes.
“It enables people to live independently in their homes and it is more cost-effective. It reduces the burden on the system and frees up resources.”
According to Malcolm Hart, who is in charge of Philips’ medical business in Britain, the key saving for the NHS from use of the Philips system at a cost of £80 a month will be in reducing hospital visits by people with long-term illness.
Mr Hart said: “What we are trying to do is to avoid readmissions and trips to Accident & Emergency. If a patient is readmitted to hospital it costs about £2,000.
“With the recession, there is a shortage of cash. We need to find a solution to the growing demands on the system. We need to do things differently, and technology has a role to play.”
Newham, which has Britain’s highest death rate from stroke and the highest diabetes rate, suffers a big financial burden in providing long-term healthcare for more than 17 per cent of its population, the DoH says.
Some 400 patients are being monitored in Newham. Each is provided with diagnostic equipment, such as an SPO2 meter for blood oxygen, which clips on the patient’s finger. The meter is attached to a set-top box linked to the patient’s television. The readings are sent to healthcare staff of the Primary Health Trust, who contact the patient if the readings cause concern.
The Newham trial includes patients with diabetes, heart disease or breathing problems, known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, a condition affecting a million Britons.
The trial will also use sensors installed in homes to monitor elderly people suffering from dementia, or individuals with Down’s syndrome who may be at risk of injury.
The DoH is sensitive to the “Big Brother” issue involved in installing surveillance equipment in homes. “These are monitoring devices and there are issues of privacy,” said a spokesman.
If the trial is successful, Philips hopes that it will lead to much wider use of its technology by healthcare organisations. Self-diagnostic systems could be used, Mr Hart says, not only to monitor illness but to check general wellbeing. Philips recently acquired Respironics, a US provider of equipment that treats sleep apnea, a respiratory ailment linked to obesity.
Philips is targeting companies in America with a new product, DirectLife, which provides each employee with a keyfob that records physical activity. The employee can then create a programme to improve fitness.